The Co-operative Republic of Guyana has a population of approximately 760,000 people. The majority of its inhabitants are concentrated along the coast, and are of African and East Indian descent, with Indo-Guyanese being the dominant group in government and business. According to the 2002 census, Guyana's indigenous people (locally termed Amerindians) constituted 9 per cent of the population, with 90 per cent of their communities located in the vast and remote savannah, riverain and heavily rain-forested interior. Amerindians share many national cultural traits with Afro- and Indo-Guyanese; however, the traditional Amerindian communal hinterland lifestyle and the use of ancestral idioms (as opposed to English) as their first language serve to set Amerindians apart from the more urban mainstream coastal population.

In 2010, the standard of living of indigenous peoples in Guyana remained lower than most of the non-indigenous population. Indigenous peoples continued to receive poor social services, inadequate education and lower incomes, and have limited opportunities to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions and allocation of natural resources.

Two Amerindian women hold positions in the government, as heads of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs and the high-profile Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, a long history of discrimination, marginalization and poverty has ensured that in 2010, the majority of Amerindians in Guyana still risk being viewed as second-class citizens by some of their fellow Guyanese on the coast.

Guyana Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation project

In November 2009, the Norwegian government agreed to pay Guyana US $250 million over a five-year period. This money, allocated under the international Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) initiative, would allow the country to protect and manage its rainforest, via the Guyana Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (GRIFF) project. Three years earlier, in late 2007, Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo had offered up the country's large tracts of standing forest as a giant carbon offsetting zone to counter climate change. At the time, he explained that the main aim was national revenue generation for the cash-strapped government, and not environmental altruism.

Since 2006, almost 13 per cent of the country's land has been recognized as indigenous property. As a large part of this is within the densely tree-covered rainforest zone, Amerindian participation in the GRIFF project is important to its implementation. As a result, the scheme was formally introduced to Amerindian leaders (toshaos) at a November 2010 conference of the National Toshaos Council (NTC) (a body of indigenous leaders established under the 2006 Guyana Amerindian Act), where the president announced that US $8 million of the Norway Fund would be allocated to various projects to benefit Amerindian villages under a Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS). This included US $1.5 million for solar panels for all Amerindian houses, US $2.5 million to finance development activities, and US $4 million for demarcating community boundaries.

Of the 171 Amerindian representatives present at the meeting, 166 signed the LCDS resolution. But there was very strong criticism from those leaders who withheld their signatures, some of whom charged that the LCDS resolution was drafted without their knowledge and first presented to them just minutes before their signatures were required. They also claimed that neither the organization's executives nor many of the leaders who actually signed had any prior knowledge of the contents, and that Guyana's Amerindians should have been consulted during the drafting process, in accordance with their right to free, prior and informed consent. In addition, the dissenting leaders contended that many communities do not understand the conditions of the agreement between Guyana and the government of Norway with respect to REDD+ and the LCDS, and needed more details in order to assess fully the likely impact on their own way of life. They also objected to clauses that could mean the complete exclusion of any role for NGOs, such as indigenous rights defenders and environmental protection advocates.

From the outset, some of the the country's indigenous groups and others have viewed the President's LCDS as another government effort to appropriate densely forested timber-rich indigenous lands and the sub-surface resources. The dissenting leaders charged that the conference was another example of a pattern of flawed consultation by the Guyana government, which they say is characterized by the one-way dissemination of information and no real dialogue.

As it turns out, the indigenous peoples of Guyana may have good reasons to query government motives and actions. According to the local daily Stabroek News, it was revealed in 2010 that the much proclaimed landmark Amerindian Act of 2006 – around which all Amerindian policies revolve – had never actually been signed into law.

The revelation came as a particular surprise to the indigenous population. The 2006 Amerindian Act mandated an annual transfer of 20 per cent of the royalties from mining activities to a fund designated by the Minister of Amerindian Affairs, to be used for the benefit of the Amerindian villages. Since 2006, the money accruing to Amerindian communities from the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) would have amounted to many millions. As it turns out, during this period the GGMC did transfer some US $9 million to a government-owned investment company. However, indigenous leaders appeared unaware of the existence of these funds, which total more than the amount allocated to Amerindian communities under the Norway programme.

Following the revelation, the government was hurriedly forced to table a bill to commence implementation of the Amerindian Act of 2006 and backdate a large number of related decisions. As of the end of the year, however, there was no indication of what had become of the millions of dollars in royalties owed to Guyana's Amerindian communities.

Amerindian women

Income generation has become increasingly important to continued Amerindian community survival. The traditional Amerindian subsistence living is based on fishing, hunting and agriculture, but the demands of the contemporary economic structure necessitates a source of cash income, in order to supplement diets, pay for children's education, clothing, transportation and specialized medical treatment.

In 2010, income-earning opportunities in Amerindian communities remained limited. Low levels of education constrict the range of options, and commercial outlets for traditional handicrafts (usually produced by women) and agricultural produce are minimal, as both depend on access to coastal markets. Some government-sponsored economic pilot projects do exist and some – mostly male – Amerindians have gone into mining in the gold-bearing region. But in the main, there are few income-earning options in Amerindian home areas.

This drives Amerindian women in particular to seek work along the coast, often in cheap restaurants and bars, or as domestic servants, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, both as indigenous people and as women. Amerindian women brought from the Guyana interior to work as domestics far from home are particularly exposed to the risk of mistreatment at the hands of their employers, especially if they are hired as live-in domestic workers.

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